Pavithra S. Mohan

Journalist. Dancer. Foodie. Busybody.

I'm a newly-minted journalist who's partial to the written word and hopes to bring life to untold narratives. 

He Said, She Said

For the past week, I've been captivated by the details of the sexual abuse allegations made against Woody Allen. Maybe it's because I was just a toddler in 1992, when Allen's messy custody battle with ex-girlfriend Mia Farrow made its way to tabloid covers. Maybe it's because I'm a 23-year-old woman. Or maybe, most likely, it's because I'm a bit shocked that people have been so quick to poke holes in Dylan Farrow's story. 

It's hard to be impartial in this situation. People more rational than I might argue otherwise, but I'd say most of us have an angle, be it gender, age, experience—or the reluctance to sully an undying love for Annie Hall or Midnight in Paris. Even journalists have struggled to stay neutral, particularly in response to filmmaker Robert Weide's piece in the Daily Beast, which pledged his support for Allen, systematically explained why his relationship with now-wife Soon-Yi Previn (otherwise known as Mia's adopted daughter) wasn't creepy in the least, and pointed out inconsistencies in Dylan's account. Jessica Winter's Slate post tore into Weide's defense and fervently picked apart his "passive-aggressive" prose. The New Inquiry's Aaron Bady explained that you couldn't proclaim Allen's innocence without assuming Dylan was lying, and that this was indicative of a rape culture. Vanity Fair's Maureen Orth, who wrote about the allegations back in 1992 and again last fall, shared ten "undeniable facts" to shed some objectivity on the entire debacle. There has also been a bit of back and forth between the two parties in question: Allen finally responded to the initial allegations a few days back, which Dylan then shot down with a point-by-point rebuttal. 

I'm going to reiterate what everyone else has been saying: none of us know what really happened, and none of us can. Allen isn't on trial, and we most certainly aren't an unbiased jury; all we can do is speculate based on the evidence and rhetoric that has been presented to us. I was hard-pressed to find something new to say on the subject, until I came upon a few things. 

First, Lena Dunham's recent tweets: 

I'm not always Dunham's biggest fan, but she makes an important point. Why would Dylan dredge up those memories and come forward with her story, one that accuses a public figure whom the Hollywood elite will spring forward to defend, unless it was true? There's a clear imbalance of power at play, one that puts Dylan at a disadvantage from the start—which brings me to my second point, one that I stumbled upon while reading Brooklyn-based writer Natalie Shure's story in the Atlantic. Drawing on her own experience with childhood sexual abuse, she writes the following: 

Yet there is something inherently imbalanced about a child abuse case. The very secrecy that makes the truth “unknowable” is an instrument of the crime. With no witnesses or credible legal evidence, the “he said/she said” conundrum prevails. The assailant knows this, and he can use it to his advantage. As soon as children make allegations, they enter a world filled with adult concepts—ideas they themselves don’t entirely understand. In order to even tell their stories, they have to learn a new language, putting vague, undefined feelings into unfamiliar words. The whole drama plays out in a grown-up context, which means the grown-up always has the upper hand. Neutrality never even has a chance.

This got me thinking. I've seen this exact imbalance play out in an opposite fashion with other child abuse cases, specifically in the context of shaken baby syndrome (SBS). Last year, I worked with the Medill Justice Project at Northwestern, an investigative journalism organization that examines potentially wrongful convictions. The case we looked into was a 15-year-old murder conviction that sent former Illinois babysitter Pamela Jacobazzi to prison for allegedly shaking an infant in 1994, resulting in his death the following year. Jacobazzi was the primary suspect from the very beginning, for a few different reasons. 

In the nineties, SBS was a diagnosis that was widely accepted by the medical community. It came to be associated with a triad of symptoms: subdural hematoma, retinal hemorrhaging, and cerebral edema—otherwise known as bleeding in the brain and retina, as well as brain swelling. Experts claimed that, when found in conjunction, these symptoms could only be caused by the violent shaking of a child, even in the absence of external injuries. SBS has since been hotly debated and is no longer considered a surefire diagnosis: biomechanical experts have argued that the level of force required to cause those type of injuries would result in severe neck injury before brain injury could even take place, and the triad of symptoms has also been attributed to preexisting medical conditions and accidental falls. 

But here's a more relevant explanation for the quick-draw allegation: Jacobazzi was alone with the child before he became unresponsive and was rushed to the hospital. There were no witnesses and no video footage, since Jacobazzi wasn't required to have cameras installed in her home (which is a whole other issue). An infant can't speak up, and so the burden of proof fell on Jacobazzi. 

I do believe that Jacobazzi may have been wrongly convicted. After looking at medical records and court transcripts and speaking to experts, I came to the conclusion that the evidence didn't quite add up. But there's a parallel to be drawn here: the same "he said, she said" dynamic that's found in most child abuse cases, and the way in which that places the guilt on one of the parties, leaving little room for impartiality. I'm not saying the blame should fall on the adult by default because that's exactly what leads to wrongful convictions—but why do we treat sexual abuse allegations so differently? Is a 7-year-old so much more "grown-up" than a helpless infant? What is it that makes people immediately question a victim's allegations, despite statistics that report 1 out of 5 girls and 1 out of 20 boys suffer childhood sexual abuse? 

Dylan's case, in particular, is made worse by its very public nature, along with the open animosity between Mia and her ex-lover, and the difficulty of nudging the pedestal on which Allen has been placed by the film industry. I can't imagine it's easy for the Farrow-Allen clan to see their names in every news outlet across the country, with all their dirty laundry floating in the ether—but at least we're not sweeping it under the rug to protect Allen's reputation. We're having a conversation, and I think that is something to be happy about.